Black Ice - Lake District Winter Ethics

© Nick Wharton
Steve Scott takes a look at the ever-present winter conditions debate ahead of a meeting in the Lake District.

To have your say come to the 'live' debate arranged by the Lakes Area BMC at the Hawkshead Brewery, Mill Yard Steveley nr. Kendal on November 30th starting at 8pm. Dave Birkett, Max Biden, Simon Webb are speaking with Nick Colton keeping control from the chair.

in the chimney of Botterill's Slab  © Nick Wharton
in the chimney of Botterill's Slab
© Nick Wharton
It strikes me that there are a number of threads to the dry tooling debate, and the mention of dry tooling fosters a different response depending upon which side of the Border you regularly climb. The recent cold and icy winters in the south have raised issues that have been largely resolved in Scotland.

In Scotland the debate simmered ten years ago and through the pages of Scottish Mountaineer the MCofSinitiated a debate in 2003, culminating in a public meeting on winter ethics held at the Ice Factor. The debate was inconclusive, yet a guidance document "Winter Climbing – A Code of Good Practice" produced in 2002, attempted to address damage to rare alpine plants, define what makes a winter ascent, and commented on 'dry-tooling' of established rock climbs - two related issues.

This code states that:

" would be considered unethical to dry-tool rock climbs, established or future. Summer routes that are of good quality and in particular classic climbs, often have little vegetation or even ice. They should only be attempted in winter when fully coated with snow and ice in order to prevent damage to the underlying rock. During the winter ascent of summer rock routes there should be a presumption against the use of pegs. All attempts to find protection on such routes should mimic the summer equivalent..."

Is it in condition?

Writing on in January 2011, Steve Ashworth claims that the winter condition of a climb is a decision for the climber. Clearly, 'tooling' up a wet and cold, or thinly hoared rock climb in winter, will result in damage. These are also just the conditions that will result in maximum damage to any vegetation.

Dry-Tooling - Sport Style

Following trends set by US and European climbers Scottish activists initially set the pace in Britain, searching for and creating specific dry-tooling venues with bolted lines that could be climbed all year round, Scott Muir is one of the main exponents. Following the Ice Factor debate, Kev Howett in issue 22 of Scottish Climber reported that "Scott Muir saw the development of dry-tooling as being very different to Scottish winter and only being practiced on presently unclimbed and otherwise poor potential summer climbing venues." At the time these activities were controversial, and re-opened the bolt debate, but to these climbers dry-tooling is a separate entity and has nothing at all to do with traditional winter climbing; it is the 'sport' equivalent, and has adopted a different grading system (M) appropriate for well protected moves on rock. Venues for dry-tooling have now been established and become accepted as part of the overall scene, in much the same way as bolting has developed.

As Kev Howett explained "the newly evolving dry-tooling was a separate issue, ... its practitioners did not agree with climbing quality rock lines, nor established routes so there would be few suitable venues, nor did they agree with climbing in winter on out-of-condition rock climbs."

Winter Ascents of Summer Rock Climbs - Scottish Mixed

In the Lakes there is a long standing and well documented tradition of difficult climbing on iced up rock. The first recorded winter ascent of Engineer's Chimney (VS/V,4) was made in 1910. The FRCC Journal records that: "During this Easter holiday the two (Worthington and Gemmel) did nearly all the severe and very difficult climbs in the Pillar, Gable and Scafell crags. A notable climb was Engineers Chimney with a considerable amount of ice in it." It was given a grade of IV/V. This was not an isolated event, as it was the third recorded route given a grade of V, the others are 'Steep Gill', Scafell (V,4) in 1891 and Oblique Chimney (IV,5) also on Gable, climbed two years later. The late Victorians were clearly proficient not only on difficult ice, but also on steep, technical, iced rock. "Today regarded as the most difficult and serious of the traditional Lakeland gully climbs" Steep Gill didn't receive its second ascent until the winter of 1937/38 by a team from Kendal.

In Scotland Mackenzie and Murray's Shelf Route (IV,6) on the Buachaille links a series of very difficult moves on slabby iced rock, although this was climbed in 1937 the standard set in the Lakes at the turn of the century, was not consistently matched until the 1950's. Savage Slit (Severe/V,6 1957) epitomises the advance; a compelling natural line and an established summer rock route involving very little ice work after the tricky start, as it climbs a steep, constricted chimney. In the late 1970's with reliable conditions, relative ease of access, a core of nearby talent, and using much better tools, the Cairngorms became the forcing ground of the hard mixed route; Lochnagar stands out with Pinnacle Face (VI,7) 1966, The Link (VII,7) 1979, and Epitome (VII,8) 1980 the result. The techniques and confidence then leached to other Scottish mountain venues. Tilt (VI,7) vintage 1980, still remains a Glen Coe test piece and is the archetypal iced up rock climb. Then in 1984 Cuthbertson and Paul climbed Guerdon Grooves (IX,8) and over two days in 1986, McKenzie and Spence climbed Centurion (HVS/VIII,8), these were milestones. Guerdon Grooves in particular is a very serious undertaking and still awaits a second ascent, by modern standards it may well be undergraded. Technically gifted, imaginative and bold, Brian Davison, moved things along in other areas with ascents of Engineers Slabs, Moss Ghyll Grooves, and Manx Wall all VI,7. With his ascent of Harvest Crunch on Scafell (VII,9) in 1987 he and Mulvaney provided a challenge ranking with the hardest in Britain at that time. Things were consolidating and by the mid-eighties many classic VS's had produced winter routes at VI,7. At the time some of these developments were controversial and created bitter debate, but they were almost always achieved in exceptional winters.

Today, using the skill and strength honed on dry-tooling crags and indoor walls, it seems any well-protected, hard, established summer rock route is a winter target. Improvements in climbing tools and protection, better knowledge, and the mental strength to take falls, have allowed standards to rise significantly in the last ten years.

Discussing grades on his blog after the first winter ascent of his own summer route Anubis (E8 6c/XII,12) in February 2010, Dave McLeod writes, "what did stand out was the consistency of routes which are often reasonably protected HVSs working out at IX in winter. There are of course some E2s and up to about E4s that have been done as winter mixed routes, generally where the cruxes involve cracks."

The hardest winter ascents normally involve attempting well protected, steep summer lines of HVS and above, for example in Wales Cracking Up (E1/IX,9) on Clogwyn Du by Nick Bullock, SnickerSnack (E3/VIII,9) on Gable Crag by Steve Ashworth and in Coire an Lochan Open Heart, (E1/VIII,9) by Ian Parnell. With the ascent of Anubis this has now changed, as Dave has succeeded on a hard overhanging face route. "Anubis, although dramatically harder at E8 does have a useful short crack at the crux, but then a section of E5 6a face climbing on small crimps. ... the long and short of it is I do think it's a significant step up". It now seems that, with the right preparation, anything is possible.

There is no doubting the magnitude of Dave's achievement, and the inspiration it provides. But some are once again questioning the ethic: "The route started as an idea to see if it was possible today to maintain the Victorian mountaineering tradition of opening a new climb in summer conditions, and progressing to an ascent in winter. Great that it's still every bit as possible as it was a century ago." The evidence suggests this interpretation is incorrect. Victorians climbed all year round in nailed boots, using 'local' climbing as training for the Alps and Greater Ranges. Many classic climbs were in fact first climbed by these pioneers in winter, in conditions not dis-similar to those found on alpine routes in summer, and later received a summer ascent.

Botterill's Slab  © Nick Wharton
Botterill's Slab
© Nick Wharton
Taking stock

Do these winter developments accord with the MCofS guidance, as by their nature there is unlikely to be much vegetation or useable ice, progress depends on strenuous hooking and torquing cracks. A few claim that this type of climbing shouldn't take place at all, as using axes is tantamount to cheating, and the climbers may as well peg their way up a route. These critics misjudge the technicalities and rewards of mixed climbing, leafing through any winter guidebook or journal the historical narrative validates the style convincingly. Progress onto steep rock has been the natural evolution of cutting edge winter climbing.

Dave's critics have questioned his ethics 'dry-tooling a summer rock route', but his supporters loudly claim that he is not dry-tooling, but making a mixed winter ascent. In my view this is a smokescreen, creating a false division between what they claim to be mutually exclusive disciplines, the difference in style would perhaps better be coined as winter 'trad', and winter 'sport'. It would be more productive to focus on what it is justifiable to create, and what should be protected, as is now advocated for summer exploration. Winter climbers could be guided towards what is acceptable, and winter sport enthusiasts pointed to venues available and developed for winter sport climbing, such as Newtyle Quarry, White Goods, and Telscombe.

Writing 'Winter Lines' in January 2011 on, Steve Ashworth also dismisses 'dry-tooling', as it confuses the debate. He argues that the 'line' is key, both summer and winter ascents being equally valid and enjoyable, "if in summer you are distracted by a few scratches, then you have missed the point." After making the first winter ascent of 'Snickersnap' in 2003 he was roundly criticized, and in Keswick feelings ran high. He claims that the argument is purely an aesthetic one, and has no environmental basis, "it is a selfish argument deployed by hypocritical rock climbers wishing to preserve .... a rock climb." He points out, before these summer routes were climbed on Gable Crag some preparation was needed, they "poured petrol down the crag and set fire to it. The same people were also it's strongest "environmental" supporters in the light of (the) winter 'destruction'."

Dave Birkett believes the self-styled Lakes 'gurus', as he describes them, have the wrong approach. Acutely aware of accusations of hypocrisy, as he made the first winter ascent of The Crack on Gimmer, he says "we knew Rick (Graham) and Andy (Hyslop) had been looking at it for years, but we waited for the route to be in condition, and the day we went up it was a swirling blizzard, and the route was well plastered." He thinks leaving the valley with a clear objective is the wrong attitude, "we don't decide what we are going to do until we get to the crag. When we did Harvest Crunch (VII,9) .... we could see it was in condition. These people don't wait," he continued, "we wait years, and we are prepared to walk away if it's not in condition and they should do the same, but they don't....." He also points out that the winter line may well be quite different to the summer line, Trespasser Groove on Esk which he climbed with Andy Mitchell in February 2010 is a case in point. "There was a natural winter line," he says, "and it didn't go where the summer line goes, we would have been climbing bare rock if we had followed that....." Dave is critical of the position in Scotland too, claiming that despite the longer season and more reliable conditions Scottish climbers are doing routes when out of condition, "they are going out and climbing when the routes aren't in what I would call 'good' winter condition."

Centurion, Guerdon Grooves or Gimmer Crack have had very few ascents in winter condition, so is the damage to the rock acceptable? Should summer rock climbers acknowledge that there will be scratches and nicks? The ascent of Anubis now brings any rock into the sights of talented, committed mixed climbers. It would certainly be possible, and may one day be acceptable, for the walls of the Cromlech or Cloggy's Great Wall to be climbed? It seems that the amount of sunshine is now the only factor working to prevent a 'winter' ascent. The ascent of 'D' Route on the sunny west 'alphabet' face and Asterix on the less sunny NW face of Gimmer demonstrate that any route can be sufficiently 'wintry' given heavy snow, followed by cloudy and cold conditions, and an early start. Main Wall on North facing Cyrn Las, and Capella a well protected E1 on Pavey Ark are obvious targets .....

Protecting plants - the ecological argument

Well qualified to do so, Steve Ashworth also debunks the ecological arguments, claiming that chalk damages the ph balance and moisture levels, and that scratches and chips to the rock release valuable organic matter stimulating lichen growth. He argues that developing any new lines and arguing for winter only crags is 'environmental terrorism' summer or winter! "We have to accept that any interaction with an ecosystem will have an affect and try our best to limit (its seriousness)."

Visiting Clogwyn Du last summer Elfyn Jones (BMC Access Officer for Wales) accompanied Dr Barbara Jones (Upland Ecologist for the Countryside Council for Wales and a keen climber) and Hywel Roberts (Nature Reserve Site Manager) to Cwm Idwal to investigate if there had been any damage caused by climbers to these important protected sites, they found "that the condition of the ledge and crack vegetation did not look to have been affected by last winter's climbing." The BMC urges against complacency, as with larger numbers of climbers "dry tooling and climbing on frozen turf, ...... then it is possible that there will be an effect quite quickly on these vulnerable plant communities."

So, where does this get us?

Dry Tooling

  • Agree that this is a separate discipline - 'winter sport' climbing.
  • Develop more dry-tooling venues on poor quality or unclimbed crags and sections of abandoned quarries that provide poor rock climbing

Winter ascents of summer rock climbs

  • Accept and applaud that winter standards will continue to be pushed, and that this will take place using existing lines
  • Adopt an ethical code similar to the one initiated in Scotland
  • Reach an accord regarding winter ascents of established, and particularly historical classic, summer rock routes

Protection of rare plants

  • Protect sensitive ecosystems through education, by improving technique, and using local restrictions

The strong feelings and polarization currently generated may be tempered by open debate and agreement of principles. Mixed climbing in Britain, and its rich heritage, should be embraced as an adventurous and bold, yet integral part of our climbing scene.

To have your say come to the 'live' debate arranged by the Lakes Area BMC at the Hawkshead Brewery, Mill Yard Steveley nr. Kendal on November 30th starting at 8pm. Dave Birkett, Max Biden, Simon Webb are speaking with Nick Colton keeping control from the chair. I am hoping that Steve Ashworth will speak as well but this has yet to be confirmed.

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1 Nov, 2011
1 Nov, 2011
Can this debate be filmed? I'd like to see the outcome.
1 Nov, 2011
I would like to wish Nick Coulton the very best of luck. Chairing that meeting is a sourly poisoned chalice.
1 Nov, 2011
ill ask can do it
1 Nov, 2011
An interesting point you may want to discuss is how to achieve ethical recognition and understanding... We, climbers of a certain experience, seem to think that newbies should know better. It took me years of going out and very good tutoring by well versed winter climbers to recognise conditions and understand the difference between what was right and what was wrong. In this process I have done a few climbs that were not in nick, not proud of it and probably around 5-10% of all my winter climbs... mostly when I first went without the aforementioned gurus. A book with pics a bit like that of Ian Parnell's (winter climbing+?) with clear photos, weather patterns could be produced? I hate the idea because I think it's more valuable to learn on the ground but if you're so concerned might be worth it? After all you do have less hills and more climbers in England-shire (I know I'm cheeky but then do not pay attention to anything I say, I'm but a frog!)
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